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Bernstein, Isackson named 2015 John Bartlow Martin award winners

David Bernstein and Noah Isackson, winners of the John Bartlow Martin Award (2015).

Chicago Magazine reporters David Bernstein (MSJ03) and Noah Isackson (BSJ97) embarked on an ambitious two-part investigative series after learning troubling news from well-placed insiders: Top officials at the Chicago Police Department (CPD) were purposefully undercounting crimes to make the city look safer.

The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates,” Bernstein and Isackson’s nearly yearlong reporting effort, is the winner of the 2015 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism. The pair will receive a $4,000 cash prize.

“The depth and breadth of David Bernstein’s and Noah Isackson’s extensive reporting, their impressive sourcing and their fascinating storytelling combine for an important and gripping read,” said Alexandra Robbins, who won the John Bartlow Martin Award last year. Robbins served on the judging panel this year, along with Sara Austin of Cosmopolitan magazine and Sarah Schmidt of Vanity Fair magazine. Medill faculty members Patti Wolter, Karen Springen, Louise Kiernan, David Standish and Douglas Foster served as faculty judges.

As alumni, receiving a Medill award named for Martin has special meaning.

"We are flattered and grateful to be recognized," Bernstein said. "It goes without saying that John Bartlow Martin was one of the great giants of American journalism. And, as Medill grads ourselves, we couldn't be more honored to receive an award in his name, at the school where we were trained to be journalists."

For almost a year, Bernstein and Isackson investigated the tip about the misclassified crimes. They found chilling details about police underreporting homicides, classifying them as death investigations, as well as improperly downgrading a number of other felonies to misdemeanors. They showed an unprecedented view into CPD, exposing details on how the department misinformed the public and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about crime statistics.

Bernstein and Isackson said that while they are honored to win this award, their sources are the reason they were able to report the series.

“Our investigation would not have even been possible without our sources,” Isackson said. “The victims’ families who spoke to us were willing to revisit and share the worst times of their lives. Likewise, the police officers who spoke to us risked everything, personally and professionally, when they shared information. But every one of them did so because they couldn’t stand what was going on. Each of them bravely chose to expose a system that was violating the public trust and a basic human right: simply to be counted.”

The series was commended by judges as an impressive example of investigative journalism.

“Faced with an impervious Chicago police force, the reporters relied on ingenuity and perseverance to uncover fragments of the story in the furthest reaches and most invisible corners of the city,” Schmidt said. “With exacting care, they stitched together a critical and compelling story about power, drawing an undeniable conclusion of corruption.”

Wolter, who is chairwoman of Medill’s magazine department and led the judging panel, said this year’s entries were exemplary and varied.

“There was a nice diversity of news outlets that submitted entries this year, and a great showcase of in-depth, investigative reporting,” Wolter said. “The entries covered a wide range of important topics, from mental health to domestic abuse, and were emblematic of what this award represents. The high caliber of this year’s entries is a strong testament to John Bartlow Martin’s legacy.”

Judges awarded honorable mention to two entries: “Segregation Now” by Nikole Hannah-Jones of ProPublica/The Atlantic and “State of Mind” by Heidi Groover, Jacob Jones, Deanna Pan and Daniel Walters of The (Spokane, Washington) Inlander.

“Segregation Now” investigated the re-segregation problem in the South, focusing on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and what consequences that has had on the community. “State of Mind” looked into mental health issues, focusing on the magazine’s community in eastern Washington and western Idaho, and uncovered stories that prompted concrete reforms, several lawsuits, a contempt finding, freedom for one man and the introduction of two new state laws.

Bernstein and Isackson will be honored at a ceremony on May 14 alongside Medill’s Hall of Achievement recipients for 2015.